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We must not shy away from talking about obesity if we are to address it

18 May 2023

Divided opinion

I was recently asked to write an article for the Church Times on the subject of obesity and the church’s role in addressing it. Writing for a magazine or newspaper presents its challenges: you are usually asked to focus on specific issues and given a word limit. I was happy to do it as I felt it was a really important topic. I laboured over it for a week or so before submitting it to the editor. I felt that I had done my best and hoped that it would be well-received and helpful to as many people as possible, encouraging the church community to be more proactive and not separate the physical from the spiritual when it came to people’s wellbeing.

I became aware that my article had gone live when a friend texted my wife and asked if we were aware of the response to it. I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed. The main issue appeared to be the choice of image to go with the article, which I have included below for reference:

I hadn’t been consulted about the change to my proposed title, or the image itself which some people found upsetting. There was a flurry of activity on social media (although interestingly no one corresponded with me directly as the author) and a letter was sent to the Church Times protesting about the way this issue had been approached. Opinion was clearly divided, with others defending the article and the points I was trying to make in it. The criticisms made by some demonstrated that they hadn’t read the entire article or reflected the fact that I had not been able to address every nuance of the issue within the confines of the the restricted brief that I had been given. I don’t blame people for making this point, as they may either not be aware of these practicalities or genuinely have a different opinion and personal experience. Either way, it highlighted the depth of feeling on this issue.

Next steps

My first reaction was that I was sorry that anyone had been upset. My intention in writing the article was (as some readers pointed out) to challenge the church community to consider what their role and duty of care may be in this area. It was certainly not my intention to fat shame. I acknowledged the burden, both physical and mental, of obesity and emphasised the importance of addressing the wider societal determinants that contribute towards it.

What struck me was that many of those commenting negatively on the article stressed the importance of those who do struggle with their weight practising self acceptance as well as being accepted and loved both by their community and God. As a starting point this is absolutely right, and I emphasise this in my book, Fit For Purpose. For the majority however, it should not also be the end point but rather the launching off point for taking the next steps to making whatever changes in our lives we are capable of, with as much help and support from others as we can get.

It’s important not to conflate acceptance with fatalism. It might sound appealing to accept ourselves whatever size our body, but I doubt many of us would accept the possible consequences (hypertension, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer to name but a few) quite as philosophically. Denying the extent of a problem doesn’t mean that it isn’t one, and that it won’t create more. I don’t see anyone arguing against taking action to address the wider societal causes of obesity by tackling inequality or addressing the challenges posed by cheap, accessible ultra-processed food and the increasingly sedentary lives that we live. I don’t see anyone defending the health related consequences of obesity as being in any way desirable or something that we should put up with. I’m sure this goes for everyone who signed the letter to the Church Times.

A slight disconnect

There is, however, a jarring disconnect here. We are society. Society is made up of individuals. Wanting better for our population means wanting better for the individuals within it. If no individual progress is made, no progress is made at all. We could shy away from this difficult topic. We could try to cancel or misrepresent those who raise it as an issue. We could just avert our gaze and plough all our time and effort into the next generation, focussing on pregnant mothers and young children to address the problem at root cause. We could take our money out of treating disease, which is both expensive and tinkering at the margins at best, and put it all into prevention. We could truly level up the inequalities within our society’s future. We could write off the generations already struggling with obesity, regarding their fate as sealed. No more nagging or awareness raising. No more expensive drugs, no more hospital treatments. No more doctors’ appointments. Their lives would be shorter and unpleasant but within a few decades, the health of subsequent generations could be transformed.

Maybe a few would consider this a price worth paying in the long term. Most, I suspect, would be outraged at this dystopian proposal and insist that we need to address the challenges we face, collectively and individually, when it comes to obesity. So there comes a point, no matter how unfair life is and no matter how complex and multi-factorial a person’s health problems may be, they have to consider what they are going to do about it. They could just accept their fate, and I wouldn’t blame them for it. However, most people will want better for themselves.

One size does not fit all

There are lots of conversations to be had about how we do this better, whether for ourselves or for others. There are many issues to consider when it comes to living a meaningful and satisfying life and enjoying wellbeing. Our weight is just one aspect of our lives and we should not obsess over it to the exclusion of other areas, but it is an important aspect nonetheless. Obesity is a complex issue and requires an individual, tailored approach whether for yourself or others. One size truly does not fit all. Fat shaming is not the way to go. Some people will prefer to deal with the intensely personal issues relevant to them in private. Others will need support whether from their friends, family, church community or health professional. Self acceptance is important because for change to be possible we need to love and be kind to ourselves. Being able to talk honestly about it and feel listened to, accepted and supported is the start of the journey, not the end.

—Richard

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